August 10, 2021
For months I’ve sweated and obsessed planning the Covid test requirements for another trip to South Africa. That is, what types of tests would I need and how would I get them. I just got home from that successful trip last weekend. Naturally, before leaving the USA, I researched ways and means to get Covid-tested in both directions.
South Africa required a PCR test, which was fast and easy to get, thanks to Wake County Health Services here in central North Carolina offering free, on-demand tests. I uploaded my negative test results to the United Airlines website before flying over there, a requirement to be allowed to board, and had to show the printed results on arrival to South African health officials to be allowed to enter the country.
The U.S. CDC requires Americans returning from other countries to produce a negative Covid test, too, but it can be either a PCR or a quick antigen test. Thanks to the United.com website, I discovered that Abbott Labs offers a CDC-approved, at-home antigen test in partnership with emed labs that is monitored remotely by video to assure the test subject’s identity. Sounded good, but it was dependent upon a good cell signal to work via smartphone, and who knew if I could get tested remotely using my phone from the African wilderness?
The United website made the process sound easy, but I wasn’t sure:
HOW IT WORKS (For roundtrip flights originating in the U.S.)
1. Book your roundtrip flight.
2. Order COVID-19 Antigen rapid tests on eMed.com.
3. Tests are shipped to your U.S. address (or local pick-up location).
4. Create a digital health pass account, download the app, and pack two (2) tests per person in your carry-on bag before leaving the U.S.
5. Three (3) days before returning to the U.S., start your test session.
6. Receive an eMed Labs Report with your test result. (optional test result available in the NAVICA™ app.)
7. If negative, share your eMed Labs Report test result to board the return flight.
8. Return to U.S.
I decided to give it a try. Looking deeper, I found two options for ordering the test kits. The emed site offered six kits for $150, or just $25 each. Since I only needed two tests, I chose instead to buy the same kits in a 2-pack from Optum Labs for $70, or $35 per test. Ordering from Optum was quick and efficient, and the test kits were delivered in less than two days.
I carefully packed the small kits in my carryon and flew off to South Africa where I visited the Kruger National Park for about a week. The Kruger, which I’ve written about often, is huge—about the size of Belgium—and of course a wilderness area. However, improved cell service throughout South Africa means that I can usually get a halfway decent signal most, but not, all places in the Kruger. I wasn’t sure I could at Satara Camp in the Kruger where I calculated I’d be three days prior to my flight, and the test results had to be dated not more than 72 hours before the date of departure. Therefore, I planned to try to administer the remote antigen test the morning of the third day before my flight date.
My backup if that failed was to make a 6-hour round trip drive from Satara to the Skukuza Camp Doctors Office for a PCR test that’s sent to a lab outside the Kruger National Park. That process requires 24-72 hours to get results and costs about $120 altogether (compared to the Abbott antigen test kit price of $35 delivered). But I wouldn’t know if the long detour to Skukuza and back was necessary until I tried the Abbott/emed remote test, and so I was time-crunched to do it Tuesday for my Friday flight. Consequently, I was in a hurry that morning to get to Satara Camp to launch the remote Abbott/emed test.
Thus, after two nights at the Kruger’s Olifants Camp, at 600am I departed to make my way south to Satara Camp for the next two nights. A ground mist and overcast sky dimmed the sunrise. The main road was rich with wildlife, which I often stopped to watch and photograph, but I was still able to reach Satara by 800am and start the remote Covid test procedure.
Because I couldn’t check into my Satara accommodations until 200pm, I didn’t have a private place to conduct the test. I wandered over to the electrified perimeter fence near the Satara Camp restaurant where no one would mind if I removed my mask (unlike in America, everybody in South Africa wears a mask when around others), and I used my phone, which had a middling signal of two to three bars, to sign into the emed website.
I was soon connected to a representative by video who was able to remotely manipulate my phone’s front and rear cameras to verify my identity (closeup of my passport) and to scan the unique code on my sealed test box. She and another rep took me through the entire test process in about 40 minutes.
My test result was negative (Whew!), and I was able to access the PDF of the official test result certificate within two minutes. I uploaded that negative test result to the United website as required for me to board my flight home on Friday evening. United Airlines approved it, as promised, within 24 hours, evidenced through a text message. I was therefore able to check in and board my flight Friday without any hassle. On arrival in Newark from Johannesburg, no U.S. official asked to see my test result (unlike my arrival in Johannesburg where I had to show a negative test results to South African officials before being allowed through to SA Immigration).
It was way cool that I was able to do all that standing within a few feet of the fence separating me from the African wilderness. The internet and smartphone technology are amazing tools. Thanks to the remote test kit, I was able to avoid the long trek to Skukuza and back for the PCR test. Not to mention save money on both the test itself and gasoline for the long trip south and back. I plan to buy and use more of these tests when I fly United again to South Africa in October. I understand other airlines, including Delta, also recognize and accept the Abbott/emed test results, though I haven’t verified that. I hope the Abbott/emed test will soon be accepted by all airlines for all Americans returning from international travel.